[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Letters: The Harvard Mess; Conceptual Art; 'Fat Girl'; Norbert Wiener

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Letters: The Harvard Mess; Conceptual Art; 'Fat Girl'; 
Norbert Wiener
New York Times Book Review, 5.


The Harvard Mess; Conceptual Art; 'Fat Girl'; Norbert Wiener

    The Harvard Mess
    To the Editor:
    Regarding Rachel Donadio's [1]essay ''The Tempest in the Ivory Tower''
    (March 27):

    In asking, ''What is the point of a university if not to provide a
    forum for airing controversial ideas?'' Donadio confuses universities
    with, say, talk radio. Universities have a few values more important
    than speech that is merely controversial: for example, speech that is
    well considered and speech that is well informed. Lawrence H.
    Summers's now famous remarks were neither of those things: they were
    ''off the cuff,'' as Donadio says earlier in her essay, and they were
    uninformed by the decades of hard research that has shown his
    speculative premise to be false.

    Donadio may well be right about the other challenges facing Harvard,
    but as for the jumping-off point of her essay and the background
    controversy, really, the basic principle Summers didn't grasp isn't
    that hard: engage mind before engaging mouth. Lots of us, inside and
    outside the academy, observe that principle all the time.
    R. A. KASTER
    Princeton, N.J.

    To the Editor:
    After reading Rachel Donadio's thoughtful essay, I found myself asking
    the following question: why are university professors adamantly
    defending their right to freedom of speech in class while denying
    Larry Summers the same right?

    To the Editor:
    Commenting on President Summers's accusation that some Harvard
    colleagues and students have abetted anti- Semitism, Rachel Donadio
    praises him for ''a clear message, one other university presidents
    have been notably loath to communicate even as ugly anti-Israel
    sentiment in the guise of leftist open-mindedness has rippled across
    their campuses.'' She provides no evidence of presidential dereliction
    of moral duty at other campuses, or of the ''ugly'' sentiment she
    deplores. The charge is an invention by a number of organizations
    claiming (falsely) to speak for American Jewry. They seek to dictate
    what may be said about Israel at American colleges and universities
    and to dictate, as well, the identities of those who may say it. Many
    presidents, in these circumstances, have had to defend academic
    freedom against those who need reminding of our national traditions.
    The presidents could take as an acceptable standard the range of
    debate in Israel's universities. It is admirably broad. That, no
    doubt, would disturb both Summers and Donadio were they aware of it.

    To the Editor:
    The genetic inferiority of women is not a ''controversial idea,'' as
    Rachel Donadio would have it, but old-fashioned prejudice.

    Place It, Don't Throw It
    To the Editor:
    In his [2]review of Arthur C. Danto's ''Unnatural Wonders'' (March
    27), Barry Gewen says that for Danto all art is now conceptual art.
    Why does ''total freedom'' mean that art's formal qualities no longer
    matter or are subservient to ideas?

    When Gewen describes artists who ''throw elephant dung on canvases,''
    he presumably alludes to Chris Ofili, who includes large orbs of
    elephant dung in his paintings. There is no throwing of dung here. The
    carefully placed dung contrasts powerfully with the paintings' glossy,
    jeweled surfaces. It is there for sound formal reasons, playing an
    integral part in beautifully made paintings. In contradiction of
    Danto's assertion that all art is now conceptual art, Ofili's work,
    which is among the best contemporary painting, is powerful as a result
    of its ''physical attributes,'' its exuberance and aesthetic
    refinement, not its ''philosophical justifications.'' Anybody who has
    ever seen one of these paintings knows that the dung is not carelessly
    ''thrown'' by any means. It's easier to deal in stereotypes of wild,
    dungslinging artists than to find out about artwork and understand it
    on its own terms.
    Evanston, Ill.

    'Fat Girl'
    To the Editor:
    How refreshing to find someone who acknowledges that ''as the 'obesity
    epidemic' receives endless press . . . fat haters coast under the
    radar as dogooders'' (from [3]Jane Stern's review of ''Fat Girl,'' by
    Judith Moore, March 27). But as a former fat person, I would welcome
    the long-overdue acknowledgment of another unpopular truth not every
    fat person fits the stereotype of coming from a ''miserable'' family
    ''that created a hole'' in her soul ''that she tried to fill with
    food.'' I came from a happy family. I overate for the deep
    psychological reason that fattening foods taste terrific and eating
    them is delightful.
    Providence, R.I.

    Negative Feedback
    To the Editor:
    This letter is in response to [4]Clive Thompson's review of ''Dark
    Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father
    of Cybernetics,'' by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (March 20). Although
    the reviewer is kind to the authors, I would take issue with his
    characterization of Wiener as a ''lesser-known scientist'' and as
    simply a ''backroom influencer.'' I was particularly disturbed by his
    final sentence, describing Wiener as ''smaller than history.'' The
    reviewer seems to have missed (or ignored) the main contribution of
    Norbert Wiener's life effort namely, to promote ''the human use of
    human beings.''

    Conway and Siegelman have produced a superb book that promotes this
    humanism of the father of cybernetics and that should be required
    reading in both science and humanities curriculums. And, speaking of
    cybernetics, the reviewer seems to be out of touch with the current
    activity in a number of journals and the American Cybernetics Society.
    Contrary to his appraisal, cybernetics is alive and well one might
    even say thriving.
    Tacoma, Wash.

    The Times welcomes letters from readers. Letters for publication
    should include the writer's name, address and telephone number.
    Letters should be addressed to The Editor, The New York Times Book
    Review, 229 West 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. The e-mail address
    is books at nytimes.com. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. We
    regret that because of the large volume of mail received, we are
    unable to acknowledge or to return unpublished letters.


    1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/17/books/books-harvard.html
    2. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/books/review/027GEWENL.html
    3. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/books/review/027STERNL.html
    4. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/20/books/review/020THOMPS.html

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